A critical review of The industrial typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher from CCA collection

by Gonzalo Herrero Delicado 

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 Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ensley, Alabama, USA, 1982 Gelatin-silver print, 50 x 60 cm 
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

When Bernd Becher and Hilla Boweser met each other in the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, the dichotomies art/technique, form/function or architecture/engineering that industrial revolution and its consequent technical progress had introduced in the 19th century debate, were far way to be solved. In the context of the Cold War, the dominating thought trend in the western art lived obsessed with the exacerbate expression of the intersubjectivity, while photography was running in a parallel way, travelling between humanism and the formalism of the Subjetive Fotografie. Precisely because of the Boweser help, the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie achieved to get their very first photography lab, an important triumph to put the photography eye on the contemporary art discourse. Although if this achieve from the back door to put the photography into the academy eye meant that things were advancing, the Bernd and Hilla Becher artistic work still supposed a radical change into the photography foundations and it took a long time ago to be able to be classified. There were many years after that when it started to be encompassed as a drift of ‘Conceptual Art’ trends (1). However the artistic project of the Bechers’ was firmly attached to photography tradition, developing a relation between the topic and the means.

Before working with who will be his wife and artistic couple since late fifties, Bernd Becher had paid attention to Siegerland industrial landscapes, the region where he grew, through early painting and etching works. But drawing didn’t satisfy him, he thought it was too psychological and constraint with author, a limited technique to precisely show the precision of industrial architectures. He founded through amateur anonymous works that photography could reflect that precision. Adding to these circumstances that crisis in the industry had carried out a very fast demolition and dismantling of many industrial installations in Germany, photography seemed to be a fast, effective and precise way to register all of this industrial patrimony before its disappearance.

 Bernd and Hilla Becher, Charleroi-Montignies, B, 1971 Gelatin-silver print, 50 x 60 cm 
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

The stance taken by the Bechers’ avoids any introspection and turns its view to the world, in order to report about it with an objective attitude. After two years of team work, about 1961 they had already developed a methodological discipline that they will never forget and that carried out a severe ethic of respect to the objects, where the trace of artist is imperceptible and giving room to the objects to express by themselves, to tell their own story (2). In order to do that, they established a very strict working protocol: illumination conditions, lenses use, perspective point of view, shadows… “All that we tried to do it was just to give back to photography a higher precision than human eye has” (3).

But it is important to mention that the work of the Bechers’, partly shown in the Typologies collection at the Canadian Centre of Architecture and exhibited in some of the most authoritative centers of the world (4), has been even more relevant during last five decades from the point of view of the architecture that they photographed than from the field of own photography technique. The content of their photographs and its organization has been even more interesting than the own format and technical characteristics. The architecture of industrial buildings without any design neither authorship nor pretension of permanency. “The war took from us the pleasure to look back to the past and we just try to recover it” as explained Hilla Becher in an interview (5). In the factories, the water containers, the quarries or the extraction castles – as they insisted, production elements but not products in themselves - the Bechers’ found the starting point of their critical behavior, the real soul of the industrial thinking that was disappearing through a new fordism trend. “These industrial buildings were just pure economy. They were even thought to be transformed and lately demolished as the new industrial procedures will be improving and polished. The factories, which were not built for the future, are like huge theme parks, composed by buildings that could be quickly dismantled […] What really attracted us it was that you could even see those transformations and experiments through photos” (6).

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gutehoffnungshütte, Oberhausen, D, 1963 Gelatin-silver print, 50 x 60 cm 
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

Postproduction is a term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, co-founder and former director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which could perfectly be fitted to Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ photographs shown in Typologies series into CCA collection. Bourriaud took this term from audiovisual industry and applied it to art field in his book Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay (7), referring to specific artworks made of preexisting works. In Bourriaud’s curatorial view, the artist takes what has already been produced in culture and, through creative postproduction means, expresses a new cultural configuration that both speaks to contemporary culture as well as the source material that has been remixed. Extrapolating this concept originated in the film and television world to the architectural practice, anyone could find in it an intelligent strategy for the development of projects working with existing and obsolete built patrimony.

 Bernd and Hilla Becher, Grube San Fernando, Herdorf, D, 1961 Gelatin-silver print, 50 x 60 cm 
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

The Bechers’ work is an obvious inspirational view for architecture field, but their underlying discourse of how industrial architecture was an example of economical, social and environmentally postproduction, it is even more remarkable in current crisis situation. While European cities present very low demographic growth today, they have extraordinarily urban built environments with numerous disused industrial buildings gathering their downtowns and suburbs. Adding to these circumstances certain environmental and social sustainable values, and bearing in mind the current economical situation, anyone can reach the conclusion that the postproduction of architectural heritage as the Bechers’ perceived it – obsolete after new and continuous social, economic and technological changes – is a need. The work developed by Bernd and Hilla Becher presented in the CCA collection, creates an utopian and even romantic view over industrial patrimony, an analytical and visionary approach to built heritage that surrounds current post-massive industrialized urban landscapes. Their delicate and careful view of the former industrial and agricultural landscapes through their infrastructures composes an extraordinary powerful catalogue of built items to be post-produced in current crisis situation. Their focus on European and North American could be even extrapolated now as a contemporary archive of opportunities to face the future of architecture through that postproduction purposes that were implicit in the industrial structures that they photographed.

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(1) Their first approach to conceptual art trends was coined in 1969 when they took part in the exhibition Konzeption organized by Rudolf Wedewer and Konrad Fischer in Leverkusen (Lange, S.: Bernd and Hilla Becher. Life and work, Cambridge, Massachussets Institute of Technology, 2007, p.65).
(2) According to the ArtForum (May, 2004) review written by Daniel Birnbaum about the exhibition “Bernd and Hilla Becher: Typologies” at K21-kunstsammlung nordrhein-westfalen in Dusseldorf, “[…] the Bechers’ way of presenting collections of variations on a theme does not really permit the individual objet to ‘speak’, whatever that might mean”. The Birnbaum analysis could be understood from a postphotographic theory, taking in account the “realistic” common ground of this representation media due to current digital possibilities. The Birnbaum statement it is also relevant because of his focus on the relevancy of Bechers’ work nowadays and the obsolescence of their speech within contemporaneity “The industrial world the Bechers depict belongs to the past, as does the technique they employ. This was photography”.
(3) Bernd and Hilla Becher in conversation with Cornelius Tittel, published in Die Welt , 21st August 2005
(4) Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape/Typology exhibition in 2008 at MoMA of New York.
(5) Jocks, op.cit., p.207
(6) “If there is a photographic style able to survive, it will be the objective photography. After the experience of two World Wars, the German artists it was easy to ignore the history and their immediate reality. Although in that moment the documentary style had turned almost impossible, we wanted to be back to the true origins of photography, they are valuable media to reflect the reality” (“Nous avons montré des images qui étaient déjà composes”, an interview to Bernd and Hilla Becher with Michel Guerrin for Le Monde, 23rd May 2001, p.32 taken from the catalogue of the exhibition “Bernd and Hilla Becher: Typologies”, Madrid, Fundación Telefónica, 2005, p.7).
(7) BOURRIAUD, Nicolas. Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002